By Thom Henninger
On Saturday, Cubs right-hander Carlos Silva struck out a career-high 11 and improved to 7-0 with a masterful 5-0 victory over St. Louis. The 31-year-old veteran, who allowed just two hits and didn’t walk a batter over seven innings, worked ahead in the count consistently all afternoon.
It’s difficult to say what the Cubs expected from Silva when they dealt head case Milton Bradley for the seemingly washed-up right-hander in December. Silva had gone 5-18 in two seasons with Seattle after leaving Minnesota as a free agent. Opposing hitters had batted .330 against him in a Mariners uniform, and it seemed likely Seattle would get the bigger payoff in the Silva-Bradley deal.
Not only has Silva won all seven of his decisions, he’s posted a 3.12 ERA and limited hitters to a .245 average. Going into the 2010 campaign, opponents had hit .308 against him since the start of the 2004 season. Even more impressive are Silva’s 42 strikeouts and 11 walks this spring.
If there’s reason to believe Silva can continue to excel, it would have to be his nearly 4-1 strikeout-walk ratio, a milestone he has reached only once as a major league pitcher. That was in 2005, when he struck out 71, walked only nine, and posted a career-low 3.44 ERA as a starter for the Twins. Silva pitches to contact, always allowing more hits than innings pitched, so he can’t flirt with trouble by issuing a bunch of free passes.
At the core of Silva’s success has been his ability to throw first-pitch strikes. He’s recorded a strike with his first offering to a hitter at a 69.5-percent clip, the highest in the major leagues among ERA qualifiers. Continuing to get ahead of hitters at that rate may determine whether Silva continues to thrive after several mediocre seasons.
One reason to doubt Silva might be the ample run support he’s received. The Cubs have averaged 7.12 runs per nine innings when he’s on the hill, and only three NL hurlers have received more support. Still, he’s often pitched with only a small lead before the Cubs have tacked on late runs.
Also to Silva’s credit, he’s been stingier himself. The right-hander has given up just 56 hits in 60.2 innings, an impressive ratio for a guy who has never recorded fewer hits than innings over a full season.
At 7-0, Silva has nearly one-third of the Cubs’ 24 victories, pitching for a team that is two games under .500. He has allowed more than three runs in a game only twice, though he’s also worked a full seven innings only three times in 10 starts. He’ll be dependent on his bullpen to win a lot of games. Although the Cubs pen has been a key weakness in the early going, it has yet to turn over a single lead after Silva has departed.
Will Silva build on his fine start? Tough call, but with each solid outing, it seems more likely that he just may be in for a career year at age 31. Looking over his recent seasons, there are plenty of reasons to doubt his fast start represents a big turnaround, but his outing against the Cardinals Saturday is another step in erasing questions about Silva’s ability to be a big winner in 2010.